What Is Vegan Wine Exactly?
Some of your favorite and reputable wineries could use animal by-products in their production processes. (Yup.) Here's how to find out and what that means for how you drink.
Picture yourself on the patio with a crisp Chardonnay or maybe a robust Cabernet Sauvignon to kick-off the sunny weekend vibes. While sipping, you may not exactly be wondering "hmmm, is this wine vegan?"—but it's actually a relevant question. Especially if, lately, we're asking more about what's in our food, then why not what's in our drinks?
First of all, here's a mini-lesson on wine-making: One of the last steps before bottling is to use fining agents. Why? It helps remove sediments, tannins, protein, yeast, cloudiness, and funky "off" flavors and/or colors; it also clarifies and stabilizes the wine. Traditional (old-school) practices include the use of animal products as fining agents—such as blood, bone marrow, and chitin (exoskeleton from crustaceans). However, the most popular options these days are to use egg albumen (from egg whites) or isinglass (gelatin from fish bladder membranes). If this is making you feel a little queasy, know that none of these fining agents make it into the final product.
However, it might be problematic if you're a vegan or vegetarian for ethical reasons; since the wine has been exposed to these ingredients.
Vegan wine isn't just a "trendy" or passing phase in the industry. Within the last two years, more people are becoming more "wine woke". Much to do with the ever-growing vegan movement. "As a result, our wine culture is ever-evolving, where many people are becoming aware that just because wine is labeled as a 'plant-based' product, for instance, it may not necessarily be vegan in the 'strictest' sense," says J-L Groux, winemaker at Stratus Vineyards. So for many winemakers, it's become a priority to offer answers due to "transparency and traceability for the consumer", he explains.
Angela Aiello, owner of iYellow Wine Club, explains that this curiosity is what she describes as "mindful(ly) drinking": "Consumers are asking more questions because they are wine-curious," says Aiello. "'Mindful drinking' means that they are seeking better and more premium wines to enjoy." Aiello says she feels this is a positive industry disrupter. And it's not just IRL but in the social/digital world too. "In my line of work, I've had more and more 'foodie/drink' Instagram influencers ask me whether a specific wine company adapts vegan production practices. For them, it's an important core value they want to share with their followers."
And not every winemaker agrees about what fining agents to should use, says Aiello, and the industry is at a bit of a crossroads. "At first we were getting asked about sulphites, additives, and allergens, which paved the way for vegan-related questions to begin pouring in," explains head winemaker Lawrence Buhler from Henry of Pelham. Now, Buhler says he is exploring alternative ways to produce more vegan friendly wines. "I'm still on the search. We've used egg whites for the longest time—and for me personally, it does a superior job compared with plant-based fining agents. But the long term goal is to pursue more ethical methods of making our wines," he says.
Westcott Vineyards is a vineyard that's made the transition successfully. President and co-owner Carolyn Hurst, explains that "up until two years ago, we were using egg whites. That's no longer the case, and we only use plant-based methods now." Hurst says that her flexibility and desire to explore more holistic/sustainable applications to winemaking stems from understanding the importance of evolving and being flexible to shifts in the industry; it's the difference between thriving versus just surviving.
Still, others have adopted a pragmatic approach. "For me, vegan wine—in terms of its taste and quality—is exactly the same as its conventional counterpart," says Julia Harding, "Master of Wine" and co-author of Wine Grapes. "Using vegan-friendly fining agents equates with inclusivity and simply means that more people can enjoy your wine." Harding adds that a great way to connect with the industry is to attend fun and informative events such as the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Festival, Gérard Bertrand's Jazz Festival, Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, International Pinot Noir Celebration, and many more. In these casual and comfortable environments, you avoid "wine snobbery"—and instead, connect with winemakers directly to ask about their production methods… with plenty of tasting opportunities on hand (all in the name of research, of course).
The Bottom Line: Is My Wine Vegan?
At this point, you're thinking—so "how do I know if my wine is vegan or not??" While some wines will have labels by an organization (e.g. Vegan Action or European Vegetarian Union), remember that there is currently no universal governing body recognized by the government that's specific to certifying wines as vegan. So, the best practice is to do your own homework. Barinvore is a good starting point to cross-reference your favorite brands with, but it's actually best to go directly to the source. Reach out to your favorite wineries and ask to speak with their winemakers who can tell you if they use vegan-friendly fining agents.
That may be any of the following: bentonite (a type of clay generated by volcanic ash), limestone, kaolin (a type of clay mineral), plant casein (such as pea, soybeans, lentils), or silica gel (silicon dioxide-based solution), explains Nicolas Galy, North America brand ambassador for Gérard Bertrand). Unlike detailed food labels, wines aren't required to provide this information (or its methodologies), so Galy says that your best practice is to simply ask. He explains that the best wineries are those that build honest relationships with people by being "open, transparent and authentic in their wine-making philosophies and practices." Ultimately, if you learn that a winery's culture and practices don't align with your personal values and belief system, maybe it's time to consider switching to brands you feel good about drinking. Cheers to that.
Best Vegan Wines
Stratus Vineyards offers 100 percent vegan wines produced in a LEED-certified facility whose winery has a commitment to ethically and sustainably produced wines. Fun fact: Former President Obama is a fan of the winery (and no, sorry—that vintage he enjoyed has been long sold out - but you can try its sister wine Stratus Red 2015).
None of Westcott's wines use animal by-products as fining agents. Westcott is focused on highlighting the Niagara region's terroir. And while they make a few varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs are where they shine most brightly.
Liquid Farm produces earth-driven wines that are lower in alcohol compared with their Californian neighbors. They're best known for their collection of fruit-forward chardonnays, which use no oak barreling, no additives, or machine labor to process the wines.
This French winery was founded in 1975 and located in the heart of Villemajou Estate in Corbières. The winery emphasizes biodynamic wine making practices. One of their signature lines is Naturae, which is not only vegan, but also organic, without additives, and sulfite-free.
Blackenbrook winery was deemed the first vegetarian wine producer in the South Island of New Zealand and is increasingly offering a wide range of vegan options that include Rosé, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc.